Friday, June 16, 2017

Comment on a Great Cover (1): THE FLASH #258 (1978)

I have never been a great fan of the Flash. I remember reading some of his stories around the time CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS was redrawing the DC Universe, but surely not enough to tell Barry Allen from Wally West at first sight, or to care much about it. And not even FLASHPOINT (2011), which I read from cover to cover, and to which Flash was central, did anything to draw me into the fold of Flash fans. And maybe, just maybe, it was due to this excellent cover by Jack Abel and Rich Buckler that haunts me from the time I was eight or nine.

And I’m sure it was not just any child’s natural fear of the fire that consumes Flash’s flesh, exposing the skull beneath. Nor the realization that superheroes are mortal after all, as much flesh-and-blood as any of us – a scary thought for any kid, used to believe that heroes live forever and cannot be defeated by second rate villains like Black Hand (not that I had even heard of him before). That the cover is gruesome (although brilliantly so) cannot be disputed, but it has remained an object of fascination for me since then. And there are several reasons for that, pilling one over the other, building a graphic edifice of macabre grandeur. Some of those elements are of clear intention; others however, result from fortuitous circumstances, like the darkly morbid humor that results from the juxtaposition of the hero’s sobriquet – the fastest man alive! – with a cover illustration where the Flash is everything but:

Then we have all the macabre trappings of the Flash being devoured by flame to the very bone, his skeleton sticking out from charred flesh and burnt costume, the shadows on the musculature of his torso looking nothing as much as fire-blackened roasted flesh. I guess death as never been rendered so viscerally in a super-hero comic book cover, something I believe can be attributed to Abel’s experience inking horror stories for MISTER MYSTERY (#2 -3 , 1951-52) and JOURNEY INTO UNKNOWN WORLDS. And what can one say of the look – the hopelessly desperate look on Flash’s eyes, still alive in the exposed caves of their orbits? In truth the progression of terror patent in Flash’s eyes in the last three steps of his deflagration tell unheard tales of unexpected horror and despair.

All this is fostered by the cover’s extremely dynamic layout: the reader’s own eyes are subtly dragged from the cover lower right along with the Flash’s curving trajectory, past where it’s intersected by the fatal beam from Black Hand’s gizmo-rod (C), and finally to the hovering villain himself, gloating like a mad-angel of death, in the right upper-corner of the page, there to be sent again along the beam of the rod  to where it hits Flash (C), igniting him,  a dramatic circularity that subliminally convinces the reader that there is no escape for our hero.

At least, that was the idea that held me in its unbreakable grip for all these years. So much so, that it kept me from reading any more Flash stories. Maybe I should make a short parenthesis in here: it is true that a good cover must be able to stand for itself – and this one surely does that. But in this particular instance, besides being effective from a dramatic and commercial point of view, the cover really had something to do with the story inside. And in that story, “The Day Flash Ran His Last Mile!” (by veteran Cary Bates, penciled by Irving Novick and inked by Frank McLaughlin), the villain Black Hand addresses the reader through the fourth wall, putting forth a clever explanation for his sinister plan:

I must admit that the idea of a “protective aura” shielding Flash from the friction-heat of his speed seemed cleverly logic to my young mind. After all, how would he be able to run at such speeds (even light-speed if one’s to believe his earlier stories) if it wasn’t so? And how clever of Black Hand to devise a way to neutralize said aura.  That’s the stuff great adventure is made of. However, the story at hand was a two-parter, to be concluded in THE FLASH #259 the following month. And, thanks to the erratic distribution of Brasilian-printed comic books in Portugal, where I then lived, I never got to read its conclusion (not for a few decades anyway, but it was enough delay for the effect to from the cover to dig deep in my mind). As such, the last I heard of the Flash was the final gloat of Black Hand assuring me that our hero had ran his last mile.

The truth is, I could not see how could the Flash escape such a tragic destiny. And I don’t mean in the story per se. Even at such a tender age one knows that he must have found a solution, or else there would not be any more stories featuring the Flash – and I knew there were (although I kept away from them). But I couldn’t see how could he escape such a tragic destiny forever. If he truly depended on that aura to survive such speeds, how could he run that fast without ever thinking that his aura could fail from one moment to the next? That someone else would discover the same gizmo as Black Hand did. Or, what the heck, what’s to say it wouldn’t just fail by freak accident? And I kept hearing Flash’s voice panting in panicky effort in my brain “I can’t  slow down… fast enough…” 

I guess it was this existential dread that killed my taste for the Flash. When one relied solely in comic book logic, it was easy to accept the workings of his powers. But as soon as one tries a scientific approach to it (an acquired taste from Julius Schwartz, who was then ruling editor on the book), the unavoidable cold equations take hold… and the universe is indeed a cold and indifferent place. One can run, but one can’t hide. And to err in the side of caution, better not run as fast as the Flash.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

INTERREGNUM (ii): Comic Book Logic and Rape

Comics suffer the constraint of perception. For all of its growing social relevance, for all of its long history from the pages of the funnies to the glossiest of graphic novels, comic books still bear the stigma of entertainment for kids. Comics are still that crazy kid’s stuff. And hence that delightful paradox: no longer for kids, who barely think of sex, they’re targeted at teens who barely think of anything else. And one thing teens won’t find in super-heroes books is sex (at least beyond the tame suggestion of it in the context of romance).

Now, it is obvious that sex mustn’t have a prominent place in super-hero comic books, since as a rule those are not erotic or porn books. Each genre with its own rules, even though nothing prevents genre fluidity, or the successful inclusion of explicit content in superhero comics, as both Comico’s ELEMENTAL’S SEX SPECIAL (1991-1993) and WildStorm’s THE BOYS (2006-2007) or Dynamite’s HEROGASM (2009) clearly attest. Nor is either of those matters the point of this brief post, although I intend to tackle both of them in future writings.

If I now bring up the subject of sex I do so in a more specific context – that of rape in superheroes comic books, and even so (saving the subject for a future and longer post), only as the utmost perfect illustration of Goldman’s rule #4: “the comic-book movie doesn’t have a great deal to do with life as it exists, as we know it to be. Rather, it deals with life as we would prefer it to be. Safer that way”. Even if the way we prefer it to be is childish.

First of all, I’m not talking about graphic representations of rape. Just as graphic representations of sex, they would have no place in mass-market entertainment like the comic books put out every month by Marvel or DC. What I really want to discuss is the very concept of rape. The basic idea that anywhere in the universe – in the superhero universe – such a thing could happen. To anyone. Let alone to some super-powered female come from Krypton or a power-stripped mutant in Genosha (yes, I’m thinking of the infamous UNCANNY X-MEN #236) or Kansas, or whatever.

Despite endless talk about why superheroes need secret identities to protect their families and the ones they love, we know that the Vulture, or Doc Ok, or Venom will go straight after Peter once he advertises his true identity, and if they go for Aunt May or Mary Jane, they’ll do so without the least lubricious thought in their minds.

However, one would expect rape to be a professional hazard to super-heroines (if not super-heroes). After all, their job is to fight, many times at close quarters, with vicious super-powered villains intent on world domination and drunk on power. And even more so if said villains are of the Freudian persuasion.

In fact, reality tell us that, even allowing a large margin for underreporting, and despite a decline in crime statistics, and if we’re to believe the UNODC data for 2011, more than 26 women for each 100.000 is a victim of rape, while the FBI, for 2012 alone, lists a total of 67.354 female victims of rape in the United States. In the military (something more akin to superherodom) that number rises to one in three.

But, just as it happened with Gwen Stacy, the intrusion of reality in the comic book world is a shattering event. That supervillains are willing to rape, and that superheroes are unable to prevent it, is something people seem incapable of handling. It’s something that defies Comic Book Logic, something that further punctures the improbability sphere that surrounds the world of each main character in superhero books.

Indeed, the rape of a minor character, Sue Dibny, in a hugely popular mini-series – IDENTITY CRISIS (2005) – was probably the most decried event in comic book history. In fact it was decreed anathema from all quarters. It was deemed by some to be “the stupidest, most offensive move in modern comics”, while others considered it “the embodiment of all of the worst aspects of current super-hero comics”. Some tried to justify their aversion to it because the story did not dwell at length with the trauma of the rape victim, as if that was or should be the point of the story. And others still, with shock-and-awe bombast and no sense of ridicule, proclaimed that the rape of a superhero's spouse ripped through the superhero community, broke rules of corporate superhero fiction, and left the spirit of the DC Comics universe in tatters. But, in the end, what they all were objecting was this:

Quite restrained isn’t it? Even tame, by comparison with some of the other images I chose to illustrate this post. There’s nothing graphic about it – not even the slightest hint of nudity, despite the discrete rrrrrp sound that I imagine is Dr. Light ripping Sue’s trousers. So, the only thing objectionable on this scene is the shock of the rape itself. The unexpectedness of it. Not the unexpectedness of “how could it have happened?”, but of the more crude “How dare them (the publishers/writers/artists) do it?” type. As an example, Shaun Spalding, referring to IDENTITY CRISIS, admonishes his readers: “If you’re going to write a rape into your superhero comic book, be prepared to write it well.” Sadly, no examples are given on how to do it. What a surprise.

The best way to summarize the reaction and the ballyhoo about this scene is the one employed by a reader in a comments thread (and I’m sorry for dropping on her shoulders the heavy burden of poster-girl for social indignation) when she wrote that:

The shocking thing in this scene was, in fact, that Dr. Light dared go beyond the mere threat. The thrill of the menace was enough, just like in a theme park ride. In the comic book world some readers like to inhabit, bad things don’t happen to good people. Superhero’s wives are not raped by unscrupulous villains. Super-heroines are not objects of desire. It’s safer that way.

In truth, this kind of reaction harkens back to a time when comic books really seemed incapable of going beyond infantile prudishness even when dealing with larger issues. Take, for example, JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #84 (September 1962). At a certain point of the cover story for that issue “The Mighty Thor vs The Executioner”, Dr. Don Blake (Thor) is captured by the titular villain, a prescient ersatz Guevara/Castro figure that shows us the Marvel was much more aware of socialist reality than many of its critics.


When the Executioner, who has noticed the enticing young American nurse Jane Foster: “Such lovely eyes… such soft hair” is clearly a displaced appreciation of the girl’s other bodily charms – unmentionable by name in a comic book for kids. The sexual subtext is there, the libidinous menace is clear; and, noticing the concern of Jane over Dr. Blake, the ersatz Cuban dictator expresses his most primal instincts for the young American girl:

Would you marry me?” Yes… the sexual subtext is there, in a language that only children could identify with.

Monday, September 19, 2016

INTERREGNUM (i): Comic Book Logic vs Cartoon Logic

Comic Book Logic works because it maintains the coherence between the reader’s expectations and the storyworld. We accept superhuman powers as a given, and so we accept their functioning inside its own intrinsic logic. It is as if each and every super-powered being acted inside a sphere of non-causality, with varying radius, and inside that sphere, their powers work as they should were it not for the uncompromising laws of physics. To reach such affect, writer and artist must aim at the realistic portraying of impossible feats, both in story structure as in art. By realistic I don’t mean mere photo-imitation (one can be realistic without adhering to realistic representation), but a special codification of the logic structure of the working of such feats against the story’s expectations. The risk here is that Comic Book Logic should inadvertently slip into Cartoon Logic.

The image above, from FANTASTIC FOUR #4 (1962), sits uncomfortably near to that fateful incline towards ridiculousness. Mr. Fantastic, here penciled by “the king” Kirby, looks disproportionate in relation to the buildings that surround him. At that height, just try to imagine the size of his feet, dozens of meters below. In the early stories from Marvel’s Golden Age (during the Silver Age of Comics) the super-heroes’s super-powers were somewhat fluctuating and malleable, as if they hadn’t been completely thought out (as they probably weren’t) before being committed to the printed page. Here, Mr. Fantastic not only expands his body, as he seems to expand his size and mass as well – something that seems awkward, for a man of the size of Reed Richards on the panel above would be so massive that he wouldn’t be able to stand, and much less move. But although it is a silly situation – Mr. Fantastic stops a helicopter to ask if those aboard have seen the Human Torch – it still hasn’t slid entirely into a cartoonish mindframe.

As it had done, for instance, in the previous issue (FANTASTIC FOUR #3), when the same Mr. Fantastic turns his body into a racecar-wheel:

Please mind that Mr. Fantastic didn’t turn himself into a tire (which would be ridiculous enough by itself), but into a full functioning wheel for a speeding racecar, in the middle of a high-speed chase. Think of the sheer mechanical complexity of such feat, and the mind boggles…

Truth is, Cartoon Logic, just as Comic Book Logic, does not adhere to the laws of physics, but unlike the latter, it does not aspire to present a credible representation of the storyworld. Cartoon Logic thrives on the unexpected, on the surrealist logic of dreams, on the unchecked imagination of children still free from a sense of the world as it is. Its is a logic of free-association, of willingly incoherent rules, where one cause does not necessarily produce the same effect twice. Its dimension is a dimension of symbols, and when it invades the real world, it does so with a hint of madness.

Maybe madness is a strong world, for this madness I’m thinking of is no more than the craziness of childhood. For only a child could imagine an entire building floating through the skies, ridden like a ski by a semi-naked Amazon that, lassoed to an invisible airplane through a golden lariat, drives that incredible mass of tons of bricks and steel, with the might of her shapely thighs. Well, maybe not just children, for the above scenario appears on the pages of THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD #28 (1960), written by Gardner Fox and penciled by Michael Sekowsky:

Super-hero comic books were on their twenties when these two examples were published. Still a long way away from the revolution that would shake the comic book world around 1970, ushering the greatest comic book era of all time – the Bronze Age of Comics –, and that being so there were sometimes childish stories, already bearing the seed of great things to come, but not always more sophisticated than their forebears from the Golden Age were (1938-1954). Comics in their infancy, are surely entitled to the occasional slip into cartoonish situations.

Not so with more recent comics, where Cartoon Logic sometimes erupt like a mushroom on a well-kept lawn. In modern super-hero comic books, such eruptions tend to signal a return into childishness, an attempt to remove comic books from the adult status they sometimes have achieved, and throw them back into a mythical infancy of safe parental embraces. Of Saturday morning cartoons. Consider, for instance, the following panel from HARLEY’S LITTLE BLACK BOOK #1 (2016), written by Jimmy Palmiotti & Amanda Conner, and penciled by the same Amanda Conner with John Timms:

This is the kind of image we expect from French or Italian comedy films of the sixties and seventies (movies by Jean Girault or Michele Lupo for instance), films where the chaos of the surrealist imagination would subvert to comic effect the strictures of neo-realism and the less than ideal real world politics.

I’ve stressed in my previous post that Comic Book Logic could be a symptom of the infantilism in the medium of comic books. When it slips into cartoonish antics, it is undeniably so. Consider that Wonder Woman would be subject to the same Newtonian laws that governed Superman’s attempt to stop the Metropolis Bullet in ACTION COMICS #1 (2011) (as also discussed in my previous post). The same as saying that in the real world she wouldn’t have made it. The momentum of the speeding Mini would push her for kilometers, even if she could keep her arms locked with enough strength to prevent the sword from cutting her in half. Accepting – as we do – Comic Book Logic, we would also accept that she would be able to stop the car with the blade of her sword, smashing in the entire front of the Mini. But to slice the car in two perfect halves, cutting through the motor innards like it was butter… I’m sorry, but that is pure Cartoon Logic – something beyond even the brilliant cartoonish buffoonery of Deadpool, a character with a logic all of his own.

As I reread the previous lines, I can’t help but feeling that I’ve wasted too much time on what shouldn’t be more than a short footnote to my previous post. And I’ll be the first to admit that none of the examples quoted are enough to disqualify comic books as relevant pop entertainment. But I feel that these hints of childishness that sometimes creep back into comics, hark to something darker, as childishness is not always equated with innocence. Childishness is also a symptom of totalitarian thought control, and there is one aspect of this control that I want to discuss briefly in my next post: rape.